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Communicators are the voice of calm


May 15, 2019
By Sue Dawson

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The public may take 911 for granted today, but it was just over 50 years ago when 911 began in the United States. As we quickly move forward and are on the cusp of next generation 911, what is the expectation for the men and women who work in emergency communications centres?

They are called the 1st, first responders. They are the first contact with the caller and they will make a lasting impression on that person. Over the years, we have taught them to be the voice of calm within the chaos, take control of the call and be forceful when necessary.  

We have introduced concepts such as customer service into our emergency communications centres. Providing customer service is important, but difficult to apply during emergency call-taking in all situations.  

We analyze what each communicator does. How did they meet the standards that apply to them?  

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1221 Standard, for example, states that 95 per cent of alarms shall be answered in 15 seconds, and emergency alarm processing shall be completed within 60 seconds 80 per cent of the time.  

Whether it is this standard or others, we review the performance of communicators for quality assurance. We prepare and analyze data to determine our successes and where we can improve. What technology, procedures or training will gain the emergency response process a few precious seconds?

Makes you wonder who would apply for this position if the job posting included the potential to encounter upset callers on a regular basis, 12-hour shifts, working overtime as an essential, and monitoring your calls regularly. There will be lots of stressors throughout your career.

I would suggest to you that many communicators enter the field to help people – both the callers and their fellow emergency service workers.  

You may be asked in an interview, “How would you handle a stressful situation?” or, “What would you do if you answered a call from a close family member and they were the ones needing your assistance?”  

Before you begin your career, you think you have the required answers, at least the ones to get the job. Truth is, you honestly don’t know how you will react to the real version of these events.  

You may need to convince a family member to stay outside when others remain in a burning building or are involved in a tragic situation. You don’t really know feelings you will have when someone you know very well is the one needing assistance. Hopefully your training will kick in and carry you through the actual responsibilities of an emergency communicator for that event, but then what?  

We try to prepare communicators for the different stressful situations they may encounter. These are not the normal stressors of everyday life.

Compassion is one reason why people get into emergency communications, but it can also be a heavy weight they carry. When do they hit the wall with compassion? Will it appear at work or with family?

There are those more obvious critical incident stress situations – those emergency calls that have a profound effect on everyone in an organization or a communications centre. We work on diffusing them and debriefing staff when these events happen.  

We know that this job is not for everyone and those that have many years of service have a lot of calls rolling around in their minds. Cumulative stress may be harder to recognize.

We are getting better at taking a proactive approach to our mental health, talking about better self-care and being aware of the different types of stress. As managers we need to rely on the officers and teams within the communications centres to recognize when a team member is just not himself or herself. Sometimes starting with a simple conversation and a thank you for the job the individuals do truly matters.

All year long, we can start with a visit or a conversation to say thank you to the communicators who work with, or for, your organization.

Thank these people who dedicate their lives to help to create a better, safer community. Thank them for the part they play in that vital link with first responders. Then keep the conversation going.


Sue Dawson has been with Barrie Fire & Emergency Service in Ontario in the communications field for more than 30 years. She is the deputy chief of communications and business services.
Contact Sue at sue.dawson@barrie.ca


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